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On Cesar Chavez Day, a look at the labor leader's complex legacy

Though strong unionization among farm workers in the U.S. has not lasted, Chavez changed farmers' lives and created a model for mobilization.
Image: Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez at a rally marking the 20th anniversary of the Delano grape strike and the founding of the UFW on Sept. 8, 1985.Bettmann Archive

When she was a child, Julie Chavez Rodriguez’s relatives used to jokingly tell people that her first word was “collate.”

“From the earliest days I can remember, we were helping put together packets for United Farm Worker conventions, or going to marches and picket lines," the granddaughter of labor and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez said. "Organizing was part of our family reunions.”

For Rodriguez, Sunday, which is Cesar Chavez’s birthday, is a day to reflect on her grandfather's enduring legacy. Chavez’s grassroots advocacy elevated the plight of farm workers and made him the country’s first nationally-known Latino leader.

Chavez, a Navy veteran and father of eight, was born in Arizona on March 31, 1927. He formed the United Farm Workers with Dolores Huerta in 1966 and began pressing California’s agricultural growers for livable wages and safer conditions for workers in the fields.

Chavez used boycotts, strikes, and fasts -– novel techniques for the time -– to draw attention to “la causa” (the cause) of farm labor rights. In his movement’s heydays in the 1970s, millions of Americans supported his consumer boycotts of grapes and lettuce.

“Who would believe that the poorest of the poor could take on the most powerful industry in California and prevail? My Dad,” Chavez's son Paul Chavez, president and chairman of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, said. “His faith in people inspired them to believe they could overcome overwhelming odds.”

Chavez’s activism led to improvements in working conditions for California’s farm workers, as well as a 1975 legislation that allowed them to unionize and collectively bargain. He died in 1993 at 66, and has received numerous posthumous honors. In 2014, President Barack Obama declared his birthday a federal commemorative holiday, and across the country, his name is on schools, streets and scholarships.

The late civil rights leader's organizing tactics continue to influence the labor movement and a new generation. Inspired by her grandfather’s activism, Rodriguez worked in the Obama White House and is transitioning from serving as state director for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., to a new role as co-national political director of her 2020 presidential campaign.

"To me, he seemed like a real-life superhero, someone who was saving the world one minute, and then he would take us on hikes and teach us how to make musical instruments out of old cans and string,” said Rodriguez, who considers herself lucky to have known Chavez’s personal side. “When he was with us (his grandchildren), he was very fun and loving and playful. He had a tremendous sense of humor."

A storied, albeit mixed legacy

“If you look at my father’s life, he actually had more defeats than victories. But he believed that you only lose when you give up and stop fighting,” Paul Chavez said. This is a sentiment he considers especially relevant for civil rights leaders during the Trump era.

Maurice Rafael Magaña, assistant professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona, noted that Chavez’s impact went beyond the farm worker movement. “The level of recognition and visibility that he has in popular imagination is really important, because Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are kind of erased from a lot of the national conversations we have in this country.”

Yet with Chavez having evolved into an icon, Magaña explained, there is the risk of his story being simplified.

“Though it is nice to put him (Chavez) on a stamp or on a building, an important part of remembering him is to recognize how he formed coalitions, the way that his faith informed his nonviolent protests, and his belief in the dignity of all people,” Magaña said.

Magaña also stressed that Dolores Huerta deserved the same level of recognition as Chavez, as they spent years leading the farm worker movement together.

Many of the gains of that movement, though, were short-lived. Nationally, a 2018 Pew analysis found that less than 10 percent of farm workers are unionized. Among California farm workers, unionization rates have declined since the late 1970s. While California’s agricultural industry is booming, much of its labor force is now undocumented and wary of fighting for its rights.

“Chavez’s failure to build a sustainable union for farm workers meant that many of those gains were not carried on, and conditions in the fields gradually deteriorated again,” Miriam Pawel, author of "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez," said.

“That failure is a tragedy,” Pawel added.

On the positive side, Pawel stated that Chavez made an enormous difference in the lives of farm workers. His movement was unique because it drew in the public by appealing to their sense of morality.

Hector E. Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said that Chavez’s organizing style remains relevant.

“The best organizing is done at the grassroots level, one-on-one, listening to workers and learning about conditions in their daily lives,” Sanchez said. “To me, Chavez is an inspiration because he showed us what being an advocate is all about.”

Sanchez understands that some organizers may feel disheartened by the Trump administration, and the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. In that 2018 case, the high court held that public employees could not be forced to pay fees to support their unions.

But Sanchez is still optimistic about the future of the Latino labor movement. “Our community has responded by organizing, resisting, and embracing the most important tools of civic participation.”

Paving the way

It's not hard to see how Chavez’s strategies continue to resonate. Huerta's and his rallying cry of Sí, se puede was adopted by the immigration reform movement, and the English translation (Yes, we can) became Obama’s presidential campaign slogan.

Many tactics that Chavez pioneered have been adapted by groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Justice for Janitors Campaign and New York’s ”Carwasheros.”

Eli Cuna is the national field director for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth network in the country. She includes Chavez as part of the curriculum for training volunteers and members of her group. “Our organizing style, which is based on relationship-building, is grounded in the farm worker movement.”

Although new members of her group are often unaware of Chavez’s contributions, Cuna believes that imparting his lessons are essential to building the next generation of leaders.

“We need to be grounded in the legacy of the warriors that we came from, because now we must be the agents of change to make things happen," she said. For United We Dream, that means being inclusive of women, the LGBTQ community and people of color.

Cuna sees a clear line from Chavez’s struggles against injustice to the ongoing work of United We Dream.

“The farm worker movement was about all people, the village, a whole community taking a stand and fighting for better lives,” she added. “That is the same commitment we have in our network and in our movement.”